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'Fat Bear Week' helps spotlight York County's own bear population

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

There has been no shortage of bear sightings this year.

Increasingly, bears are spotted wandering through York County's residential neighborhoods, leading to police advisories warning the public not to approach the animals as they scavenge for food. But the bears, which are viewed as a nuisance by some, have also garnered a nationwide following thanks to a tournament — "Fat Bear Week," which ends Tuesday — that invites the public to follow 12 Alaskan brown bears in a contest to determine the fattest bear of 2022.

"For me personally, the number one benefit of having black bears in the landscape is that they are incredibly beautiful animals," said Richard Danley, the state game warden for the south-central region. "They're an animal that, like the elk, is kind of a symbol of the wild nature of our state."

In Pennsylvania today there are more black bears than ever before, Danley said. Bear sightings in populated areas can often be young male bears that are on their own for the first time and looking for a new home.

Since black bears don't have a strict diet, he said, they tend to get into trouble — namely, encounters with humans — when looking for food along roadsides and in garbage cans. In search of an easy meal, bears can be drawn to everything from bird feeders to outdoor pet bowls.

"They tend to be the vacuum cleaner of the forest," Danley said.

In search for an easy meal, the bears can be drawn to everything from bird feeders to outdoor pet bowls.

Oct. 5-11 is Fat Bear Week at Katmai National Park in Alaska. More than 700,000 votes have been cast to determine which bear has gotten the fattest in preparation for winter hibernation. Through a livestream camera in the park, the bears in Katmai have become fan favorites as they return to the Brooks River and bulk up on salmon.

The annual event is a single elimination, bracket style tournament that pits two Alaskan brown bears against each other daily until only two are left, according to the tournament website.

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In preparation for the week, organizers wrote a bio for each bear on the bracket. So, what’s that important about determining the fattest bear? For Katmai National Park it's an opportunity to educate the public on conservation and local wildlife in addition to having fun.

From black bears in Pennsylvania to brown bears in Alaska, bears are key in natural population control of prey species, according to the U.S. Parks Service. Despite the population of between 18,000 and 20,000 black bears today, in the 1970s there were fewer than 5,000 black bears in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Brown bear populations have been decreasing across the country, as have the grizzly bears of Yellowstone, so conservation efforts in areas with large brown bear populations are vital, according to the Yellowstone National Park Service.

Brown bears are the top predator in Pennsylvania. Most encounters with an aggressive black bear occur when the bear is eating, as they are very territorial with food.

A bear runs in a backyard Sunday in West Manchester township by Frito-Lay

If someone sees a bear around their garbage or comes across a bear eating, it is best to give the animal a wide berth and not bother them, Danley said. It is also common for dogs to be involved in aggressive bear reports. Dogs that chase or approach a bear may be chased by the bear in return, Danley said.

Because the black bear population has grown so large in the state, Danley said the game commission has been issuing bear hunting permits for longer seasons, particularly in the York County area. Like with deer, hunting bears is a means of population control to keep the ecosystem in balance. The game commission seeks to push bears away from populated areas and toward good habitats in the forests of southern Pennsylvania.

From events like Fat Bear Week to longer hunting seasons, conservation education and action keep local ecosystems in balance by managing populations and providing proper habitats. For more information on local black bears, visit the Pennsylvania Game Commission website. To keep up with Fat Bear Week, visit the tournament website.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that "brown bears were decreasing across the county". It has been corrected to reflect that "brown bears are decreasing across the country".

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.